Whatever you think of the much-maligned 2012 film “Jack Reacher,” it introduced Tom Cruise to the work of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. Three years later, they’ve teamed up again on the best action movie of the summer, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.”
Like the “Mission: Impossible” TV series, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, the movie sets up much of what you’re going to see during a snappy credits sequence. From there, this combination of brains, brawn and technology hardly lets up.
Those of us who still prize McQuarrie’s Oscar-winning script for “The Usual Suspects” know he likes to explain mysteries as he goes along, saving the big reveal for the final reel.
He plays fair with the viewer, except for a ludicrous sequence at the Vienna State Opera. (“Turandot” goes blithely on, despite assassinations and audible hand-to-hand combat in the wings.) And he doesn’t turn this story into a star vehicle for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, who shares the laurels with others.
Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson steals the picture as British agent Ilsa Faust, proving Hunt’s equal in cunning and combat and remaining an enigma up to the end. “M:I” veterans Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg all have significant supporting roles, and Alec Baldwin turns up as an MI-hating CIA boss forced to eat his harsh words.
The plot involves The Syndicate, a band of agents initially gathered to defeat evil but now dedicated to sowing terror. I never did understand why villainous Solomon (Sean Harris) changed sides, or how he convinced so many agents to join him – money, I suppose, though I had no idea who supplied it when the government that hired him stopped footing the bills.
That aside, I questioned nothing, enjoyed McQuarrie’s ingenuity in construction, smiled occasionally at the jokes and admired Ferguson’s performance as the most interesting femme fatale in the series.
Yet I quickly stopped waiting for her to have some romantic attachment to Hunt, because he’s not capable of one. At this point, Cruise (a buff 53, showing a few crow’s feet but ideally cast) is playing an unconquerable superman, a megalomaniac willing to risk the lives of countless people because he believes in his own infallibility.
Baldwin’s character even delivers a monologue about Hunt’s magnificence: He can break any code, disguise himself as anyone else, win any fight, enter any guarded domain. What woman could want such a man for long? It would be like falling in love with a Terminator.
Harris makes an excellent adversary, smart and ruthless and a bit twitchy, He alone takes no part in the stunts; evil geniuses never enjoy getting their hands dirty. (That’s how we know action heroes can defeat them. A guy who can’t take a punch can’t take over a world.)
It’s worth noting that the “M:I” franchise has employed five separate directors over 19 years: Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird and McQuarrie. It’s time for that to change, and for McQuarrie to keep the chair for the inevitable sixth installment.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
STARS: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin.
WRITER-DIRECTOR: Christopher McQuarrie.
RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes.
RATING: PG-13 (sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity).